Joschka has talked Rada into visiting Santa Fe with him. As tends to happen with that pair, things have not gone quite as planned…As with the previous excerpt, this was written several years ago, so it is rough and does not always match series continuity as it currently stands.
The next morning Rada got up before dawn. She stretched and dressed, then caught a whiff of an intoxicating scent. Ooohhh, that smells like . . . She inhaled deeply and then drifted out of her bedroom, following the delicious, sharp perfume. There, on the table, lay the source of the heady odor. The woman reached for the dark green stems and leaves only to have them snatched up and held out of her reach. Without thinking she jumped, trying to grab the foliage, and Joschka laughed as she bounced with frustration. “You evil, wicked . . !” she accused, eye locked on the bundle of fresh catnip.
“Fascinating,” he observed in a clinical tone, his blue eyes gleaming with mischief. “So there is indeed a universal constant among all the species called ‘feline.’ Plato was correct.” As he spoke, he waved the herbs up and down, watching Rada trying madly to grab them. He relented and dropped the bundle and she snatched it out of the air, burying her face in the leaves. “I also got things for breakfast,” Joschka added, laughing at the woman’s blissfully silly expression. After two or three minutes she returned to something closer to normal and went and shut the catnip in a drawer in her room. “Ready?” and he discretely checked his own weapons as she slung her “camera bag” over one shoulder.
“Yes-thir,” Rada managed to slur. She didn’t say anything more until they got to the SUV. “You are cruel, wicked man, my lord General. That’s like giving a sailor a fifty Pound note and telling him not to spend it all in one place.”
Well, at least her speech was back to normal, Joschka chuckled to himself. “I don’t know, Commander. For two dollars U.S., I’d call it cheap entertainment,” the Austrian said thoughtfully, keeping his eyes on the road for deer as well as other drivers. The only response came in the form of a loud “humpf!” from the passenger seat. A few minutes later she advised, “keep going straight, unless you want to loop past some of those outlier lab sites.”
He did, and so they turned right and followed the south edge of the Pajarito Plateau. Rada lowered her window and the scent of pine flowed in on the cool air. It was after dawn, but the mountains would block the sun for another half hour or so. Joschka stopped in the town of White Rock for coffee and water, while Rada got a diet soda. Despite the caution signs they didn’t see many deer, which suited Joschka just fine. North American deer were at least twice the size of the European cervids and he did not care to find out how much damage one could do to the rented Toyota. Rada had her “camera” out, but apparently none of the discretely sited installations they passed was the source of the mysterious energy emissions. “Tell me, are the Northern Lights ever seen in this area?” he broke the silence.
“Yeeess, but not now. First, it’s the wrong season, although it’s not unheard of to have a strong aurora in summer,” she answered quickly. “Second, we’re still in a solar minimum, as you well know.” He nodded, trying not to shiver as he thought about the previous winter. It had been almost as bad as 1944-45, except that he had a roof over his head this time. But he also had been much younger and had not been leading avalanche rescues in the ‘40s, either. Joschka wrenched his mind back to the present as she continued, “why? Did you see something?”
“I thought I did when I was out this morning, around 0400. There was a shimmer to the north and west and it reminded me of a weak aurora.”
“That’s not,” her voice trailed off. “Not necessarily a good thing.”
Joschka checked again to make sure there was no one coming or behind them, then turned into a parking area marked “trailhead.” “No, it’s not. If someone is up to something odd, giving off visible light would be about the last thing I’d think you’d want to do.”
“However, it could have been the only reasonable way to dispose of excess energy. Even I would be very cautions about dumping heat into an area that already has geothermal activity,” the woman pointed out. They had been speaking German up to this point, and she switched to Trader. “What are you planning, sir?”
Joschka had been thinking about what to do since he’d woken up. “First, we take a general look around and see if you can positively identify the energy source and confirm that it is, indeed, in the caldera. If not, we keep looking, although the North Americans should be free to continue the investigation by early next week, God willing. If it is here, we see if we can get closer, identify the origin and proceed from there.”
“Very good, sir,” the Commander agreed, transferring the contents of her satchel to a backpack. She’d already exchanged her walking cane for a hiking staff, also with a surprise in the shaft, and the Wanderer watched Joschka finishing his own preparations. At his gesture she led the way up the trail that wound back and forth towards the lip of the ancient volcano’s crater. The chilly mountain air made Joschka glad of his jacket, although he knew he’d be carrying it later, once the sun rose over the eastern peaks. Despite her orthopedic problem Rada set a steady pace that reminded her fiancé why he’d kept up his fitness training even though he was retired. They gained a hundred meters in the two kilometers of trail that they hiked and soon emerged on an overlook with a very good view of the southern and eastern parts of the giant caldera. Rada took out the “Hasselblad” and began studying the crater as Joschka looked around and got breakfast out of his rucksack.
Technically, the large caldera held several low areas, or valles, of which the Valle Grande was the largest. It was like a lake of grass twenty kilometers in diameter, with rounded, tree-covered “islands” scattered across the green surface. True mountains rose to the north, west and east of the caldera. Joschka studied the area though his binoculars and noted patches of wildflowers here and there amid the green, and what looked like a stream where some cattle were lazing. It was a placid scene, completely at odds with the forces that created the circular valley. The HalfDragon sipped his water and took a bite of an oddly shaped, fruit filled bread loaf that he’d picked up at the morning market. He didn’t recognize the fruit, but liked the flavor: sweet but also spicy with a hint of crunch.
Rada finished her tinkering and slowly swept the “camera” across the panorama in front of them. “What setting are you using?” Joschka inquired.
“A twenty-eighth at an f 16 because of the slanted light,” she replied without hesitation.”
“Very good, Commander!”
She turned and smiled at him. “Well, I have done something like this once or twice before, my lord.” The camera clunked like a real Hasselblad would and she brought the device over to where he stood. “Our mystery-energy is somewhere in the caldera,” she stated. “And its source is putting out a lot of gamma, which makes me really worry about what we’ll find closer to whatever is generating the radiation.”
Joschka closed his eyes and rubbed a hand over his beard, smoothing it as was his habit. “That’s not good.” He thought about what he could remember from various briefings and books about radiation and energy production. “Don’t some stellar engines put out gamma rays as waste?”
“Yes, they do, but,” and she swallowed her mouthful of ground-meat stuffed bread. “Those are extra-atmospheric power plants, sir. Unless someone has disconnected a hell of a lot of shielding, safety bypasses and other accessories, they can’t function in atmosphere without overloading and then there’d be quite a secondary crater here. And they don’t emit visible light, like you saw. Unless you can see gamma?”
He shook his head. “No. I see the range that humans see plus more at the violet end of the spectrum. But something is dumping energy?”
“Oh yes. Look,” and she handed him the camera. As he swept the rather bucolic landscape there was a definite spike as the sensor passed an area a little to the left of their position. Joschka continued the motion and noted the even readings, aside from a slight blip of something back towards Los Alamos. “What is the secondary?”
“Someone being careless, I suspect. Security at Los Alamos is not the best and on occasion they leave barrels of things outdoors, waiting for them to be collected. Someone from the North American Branch should probably drop them a note to let them know just how much of a juicy target they’re making themselves,” the brunette suggested with a nasty grin. Joschka mirrored her expression. There was no point in advertising and neither warrior had any patience with fools.
“Back to the matter at hand,” Joschka started. “While you were counting sheep, I looked up some information about the nature preserve,” and he waved towards the lush area before them. “There is a hike inside the caldera starting at noon today. It’s six kilometers over ‘moderate’ terrain, and is probably our best chance to get in and take a better look. I took the liberty of reserving two slots for us.” Rada didn’t protest, in part because she was too busy finishing her breakfast. “I also dropped a discrete word to the North Americans, so that if we do not check in every eight hours for the next forty eight, they will send someone.” It was an unusual precaution but the more he learned, the louder Joschka’s inner alarms sounded.
The couple returned to the SUV and then hiked the second public trail. It was shorter and flat and the two let themselves relax and just enjoy the lovely scenery and beautiful dark blue skies. “It is almost the same color as lapis lazuli,” he gestured towards the heavens.
“There’s much less moisture in the air. If we get the usual afternoon storms today, the sky will turn even harder blue, with brilliant white thunderstorm towers over the mountains.” Rada started to add something, then stopped abruptly and looked away, shaking her head. Joschka gave her a worried look. “Just a memory,” she claimed.
“If you are not at 100%, Commander, I can take you back to the hotel and continue without you.” Rada’s head snapped around as if he’d struck her and the woman took a deep breath, then another. Joschka watched her carefully but she regained control of herself.
“No thank you, sir. My personal difficulties will not interfere with our mission.” At that moment, their mission was the least of his concerns but Joschka swallowed his worries and accepted her declaration. He led the way back to the trailhead, and the couple drove to the entrance to the nature preserve in silence. As the SUV bounced down the dirt road, Joschka started feeling uncomfortable and prickly. He glanced over at Rada and braked the Toyota to a stop.
“Are you all right?” he demanded. She was pressed back against the leather seat, eye shut tight and shivering.
“Yes. There’s too much static electricity, keep driving please,” she asked. Joschka started the truck moving again and the feeling dissipated but he was still a touch uncomfortable. Rada had fastened the buttons on her shirt collar and tightened her cuffs, and her expression remained slightly pained. “I hope we just found someone’s broken electric fence,” she ventured, not sounding very confident.
Larry Talbot counted noses of the people waiting for the guided hike through the Valle and came up with two extra. He frowned before remembering what Paul, the summer intern, had said as his boss left for the caldera. “There’s two more people today. Foreigners who made their reserves over the computer.” That must be the two in the rental SUV, Talbot decided. They seemed like the usual tourists, although the woman was a lot younger than her “friend.” She had a big landscape camera hanging from her neck and the guide wondered if she was a professional photographer. If so, she’d need a copy of the fee schedule and attributions, and he made a note to ask her before the group left. Then he moved to the next person, checking the young man off the list and taking his entrance fee.
“Oh no,” she smiled when he asked her a few minutes later. “Just a hobby. I collect old things,” and she lifted the heavy camera to show him. The man with her winced at her statement for some reason and a middle-aged couple standing beside the Europeans chuckled. Talbot started shepherding the fifteen hikers towards the large van that would take them to the trailhead.
“I trust I don’t fall in that category,” Joschka said under his breath in German as he helped Rada into the vehicle.
She smiled sweetly. “Oh no. I was thinking of books, furniture, vintage cars,” and she batted her eye at him. He shook his head a little then settled beside her, sliding his arm behind her back.
“Anything interesting?” Joschka inquired in German.
Rada nodded, pointing towards a trio of wapiti. “Yes. It’s not just gamma. There’s an awful lot of beta being emitted,” her cheerful tone at odds with her words.
“I see them. Very nice,” he replied in English as the guide eased closer. Joschka did not care for the way the man was hovering around.
[end of hike]
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Almost. I’m having trouble with a bit of . . .” her voice trailed off, and Joschka pushed the door open a little farther and peeked in. Then he pushed the door the rest of the way to make certain he saw what he thought he saw.
“You have fur!” As soon as he blurted it out the Austrian cringed. He sounded so stupid, stating the patently obvious. And how had he missed it when they’d lived in the barracks?
Rada just smiled and looked over her shoulder at him. “Yes, I do. At least in my true shape I do.”
He walked up to her, staring at the black pelt covering her back and most of her arms. Joschka reached out and then caught himself. “Permission to touch?” he asked, falling back into very long-ago habits.
“Permission granted,” and he tentatively stroked the woman’s back, feeling the incredibly plush haircoat. When she didn’t object he grew bolder, running both hands over her thick fur. He felt her start purring and he repeated the motion. Rada turned to face him, keeping the towel over her breasts. Her pelt continued almost to her neck and he very gently scratched the little white tuft just below the hollow of her throat. She purred louder, eye closed, and he took the chance to pull her close. Rada leaned her head on his shoulder as he continued stroking her back. Impulsively, he slipped one hand under the towel and caressed the soft bare skin on her breast. The woman stiffened and Joschka pulled his hands back as she straightened up and turned away. “Sorry,” she began. “I’m just . . .”
“No, my lady. I’m the one who is importuning,” and he left her to get dressed while he tried to cool his imagination down before he embarrassed himself. He’d almost settled his mind when he wondered if her fur also covered her . . . “Damn it!” Joschka growled and went onto the patio, watching a distant thunderstorm to distract himself. Fortunately for his equanimity, Rada wore her usual modest clothes when she reappeared a few minutes later. They ate at a local New Mexican restaurant and any lingering thoughts of passion the HalfDragon might have been entertaining vanished under the effects of the green chili sauce on his steak. “Blessed Saint Leopold, what is that?” he managed after draining half his beer.
Rada smiled sweetly. “Green chilies are hotter than red in this part of the world, my lord.” She didn’t seem to have any trouble and just sipped her milk and devoured whatever had been buried under the extra salsa that she’d requested. Joschka pushed half the green inferno to the side of his plate and managed to finish, then nursed a second very cold beer.
“How can you eat that?” he demanded.
The smile turned into her warped grin. “You’ve never eaten in the British Branch mess, have you, sir? Curries turn up fairly often and sometimes the cooks get a little adventurous. It’s become something of a game to show as little reaction as possible to the heat.” He shook his head, imagining the scene very easily. “And milk neutralizes the capsicum much better than beer or even plain water,” she admitted. “That’s why so many of these dishes have cheese.”
Rada seemed to be her usual self again and they took the long way back to the hotel. The couple strolled along the river, watching the eclectic blend of tourists, locals, and tourists trying too hard to look like locals. As they passed under some trees, they heard children laughing from the other side of the nearly dry stream. All at once Rada stiffened and Joschka looked over to see what had caught her eye. A girl, perhaps twelve years old, giggled as she watched two boys playing tag. She was a pretty child, Joschka thought, with pink cheeks, rich brown hair, and dark eyes. Suddenly Rada ducked away, trembling. “What is it?” he asked.
“Not here,” she gulped. She managed to control herself until they reached their rooms, where the Wanderer collapsed, shaking and sobbing. She slipped back into Trader and Joschka’s heart sank as she whispered, “It should have been me, not her. I should have been the one who died but I was too weak. Oh Lord, why wasn’t it me that died?” She meant every word and as he put his arms around her he removed the vial of poison and the dagger that she carried. Rada wept for a quarter of an hour before he could soothe her enough to stop her quiet sobbing and drink a little water. He gently persuaded her to sit beside him and he rocked her like a child, holding the defeated woman and stroking her hair. At last she gulped and just leaned against him, utterly broken.
He petted her back. “The little girl?”
Rada nodded, finally meeting his eyes. “She looked and sounded just like,” her voice choked off.
“Like Anna?” She took a shuddering breath and nodded. Joschka tightened his embrace, holding her head against him. “Can you tell me?” After a short silence, she did.
There was nothing he could say when she finished, no words. Instead he lowered his shields so she could feel his sincerity and love and understanding of the pain of losing a child. Johann had died under very different circumstances and Joschka couldn’t even begin to imagine the horror and nearly unbearable guilt that Rada carried within her still. At last he whispered, “I heard a voice of lamentation and weeping; it was Rahel weeping for her children and she will not be comforted for they are no more.” The bent head nodded. “Oh, my Rakoji,” and he kissed her hair.
The woman carefully stood up. “Joschka,” she started, then hesitated before meeting his eyes as she undid the clasp on her betrothal necklace. “Joschka, if you want to be released from our engagement, I understand.” She held the necklace out to him on open palms. “I’m damaged goods and it’s not fair for you to be yoked to a child-killer.”
He cut her off with a furious snarl before she could say anything more, pushing the gems back towards her and getting to his feet. “No! Absolutely not, Rakoji. You said that you were weak. Perhaps you were; I can’t deny that truth. You are not the first person who’s been broken.” He hated those words, but not the next ones, “but you did not kill your daughter. That infernal creature did. You were an unwilling tool, not the mind and hand that wielded it. Love,” Joschka’s voice softened as he pulled her against his chest again, “you have punished yourself for centuries. Isn’t that enough? Let yourself live: for her and for me, Rada. Please?”
She took a deep and shuddery breath, then another. “I’ll try, Awful. I can’t promise that I will, but I’ll try.”
“Thank you, star born.” He felt her gather herself and he released her, almost as tired as she was.
To his surprise she took his hand and kissed it. “Forgive me, Awful. I shouldn’t burden you with my sins.”
He squeezed her hand. “Rada, your sins were forgiven a long time ago. Now forgive yourself for being mortal.”
“I’ll try.” He released her hand and they went to their beds. First, however, Joschka asked for and took all of her weapons. At that moment she didn’t trust herself and he didn’t either.
The next morning they went to early Mass. She could follow along even if she couldn’t partake of the Elements and Joschka found the familiar ritual comforting and strengthening. The priest had elected to go back to the Latin Mass and Joschka was a little surprised that Rada knew the responses.
The Wanderer took comfort in the service. Most of the people attending Mass that early were truly devout like Joschka was and their anticipation, faith, and joy buoyed Rada’s spirit. She had never intended for Joschka to know her dark secret. It was not fair to burden anyone with the knowledge that she had in effect helped kill Anna. But she’d been under such strain, and that little girl had looked and sounded so much like her lost child, that Rada’s walls had shattered. After they went to their beds Rada had cried again, this time silently, for Joschka and his willingness to love her. And then came the message of the Mass: that even Joschka’s love paled compared to God’s love. She wanted to believe it. The couple walked into the cool dawn at peace and comforted.
 Jeremiah 31:15, KJV